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A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is a software system designed to support teaching and learning in an educational setting. The VLE is used over the Internet and provides a collection of tools for both tutors and students such as those for assessment (such as multiple choice quizzes and report submission) communication, uploading of content, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collection and organisation of student grades, questionnaires and tracking tools. The latest type of VLEs also includes modern features such as wikis, blogs and RSS feeds.
Virtual Learning Environments are often in place within Universities and higher education institutions to supplement face-to-face learning and the classroom environment. As the importance of the opportunity for educational institutions to have virtual has dramatically increased in recent times, there are key theories and approaches that have been investigated and should be considered when producing a new interactive learning environment.
It is considered that learning environments should encourage intellectual risk taking, challenge current beliefs, promote critical reflection and give good feedback.
Group Work and Collaboration
All members of the group should have a safe environment to explore and respect their own and each other's ideas. The tutor should not dominate and the individuals and group should have responsibility for their own outcomes.
Independent learning is a theory that is a common concept within reforms in higher education. It is not about leaving students to work by themselves but about developing a climate where students are given space, support and encouragement to become reflective and confident learners.
Independent learning is a theory that ties in strongly with distance learning, and the following concepts of the theory should be considered when producing a new distance learning environment, particularly when the majority of work will be of an independent nature.
The student should be reflective of the work that they have carried out.
Within a VLE the tutor can build a reflective piece of work into the assessment or produce a module questionnaire to assist in meeting this key requirement.
The student should manage their time effectively
This can be achieved by setting deadlines and by giving an overall view of the amount of work set so as not to overload the students.
Within a VLE this can be demonstrated via calendars to highlight key dates and deadlines, overview pages of all course content, clear and accessible signposts to work that needs to be completed.
The student should know where to get help
Within a VLE, this should be declared clearly from the beginning of the course, such as in a page displaying the tutor's office hours or having discussion forums that are outside the scope of the project so that the student's can discuss any problems without being graded on it.
The student should be a team player
It is essential to stress that independent learning does not mean that the student should work in isolation.
Within a VLE, collaborative work such as partaking in an assessed discussion forums sment , for example marking each other's oral presentation or
The relationship between the classroom environment and online resources and applications is often described as blended learning.
Blended learning proposes that universities and higher education institutions can change their attitude as to where and when learning takes place and what resources and tools can support learning as well as the way theses resources can be used. It fosters integration of different spaces, allowing students to learn from college, university, and work environments or from home or on the move.
It can offer flexibility in the time when learners can participate in courses reducing or removing restrictions arising from that balancing of work or home commitments with study. It opens up range of media resources that can be used for learning. The blend of space, time and media offers new possibilities as to the sort of activities students can carry out and the ways they can collaborate using available electronic tools.
Online Discussion in Groups
Tutorials and seminars are most effective when they occur regularly; however introducing distance learning, holding these discussions becomes increasingly difficult. Online discussion forums are comparable within virtual environments to face-to-face discussions.
The advantages of these are the following:
Tutors and students can participate at any time that is convenient to them, all they need is a computer with internet access. The online discussions forum will often be available 24-hours a day, 7-days a week meaning that the discussion can be an on-going debate rather than at fixed times throughout the week or semester.
Contributions are types and not spoken. This gives everyone time to prepare their arguments carefully and include any quotes or references needed. It equalizes the opportunities to contribute so that students prefer to think before they speak or do not have English as their first language are not disadvantaged.
The discussions are recorded as a series of messages that can be viewed and reviewed, summarized, quoted and archived.
The common disadvantages found within online discussion groups are the following:
Everyone needs frequent and convenient access to a computer and internet access to participate effectively in online discussions.
The online discussion forum needs to be moderated so that topics are inclusive, centred and critical. If too few people participate over the course of the module, the seminar will wither, too many and the forum will be overwhelmed. Time that the student's will be using the discussion boards need to be taken into consideration, as does the amount of time a tutor will need to spend to moderate it.
The effects of online groups on student motivation are complex. If the start is poorly managed and nothing seems to be happening initially, students will not be motivated to continue participating and useful discussions may never develop. Equally, if too many messages are posted, students will not have time to read and respond effectively and participation may become superficial.
A separate board offering 'free chat' regarding topics other than the course are encouraged in distance learning, This provides an essential human link for learners who are physically isolated from each other. The development of this social dimension should be encouraged to help transform a group of students into a learning community.
The simplest and most mechanistic approach to assessment is to set criteria that the students must meet, such as posting 5 or more substatntial messages. The software can make it easy to verify these details by displaying all the messages submitted by any one student.
A marked assessment of the contribution made by a member to the group is much more complex. Since the quantity of messages needs to be balanced against quality of their content. A possibility is to give each student 20 points to split between the other students as they decide, depending on how they viewed their contribution to the group's activities and send these in a private message to the tutor. These are then collated and a grade assigned to the student.